Case: Nominative & Accusative

What is the best way to characterize the Nominative and Accusative Cases in Greek?

Could the studies on Greek Voice from the past two decades have the answer?


Now I don’t think this is all we can say about these two cases, but I do think its a helpful beginning point. Those of you who have followed Steve Runge’s blog posts have become familiar with Markedness Theory, particularly asymmetrical markedness (the most relevant post is HERE). But as a refresher, asymmetrical marked says that in a set, a given member is viewed as the default or unmarked (though perhaps saying, not marked might be more helpful). If we have members A and B and the grammatical value X, we could say that B is marked for X, while A says nothing one way or another about X. Gerhard Mussies is helpful here for a great examples:

In independent adjectives, the value of the feminine categories consists in the positive reference to a female person (we use the words feminine and masculine for the categories, the words female and male for the sexes) e.g. Odyssey ε, 212-213, ἐπιεὶ οὔ πως οὐδε ἔοικε/θνητὰς ἀθανάτῃσι δέμας καὶ εἶδος ἐρίζειν. From the New testament we know only instances that happen to contain participles or numerals: Matt. XXIV 41 δύο ἁλήθουσαι ἑν τῷ μύλῳ μία παραλαμβάνεται, καὶ μία ἀφίεται, and Luke I 45 μακαρία ἡ πιστεύσασα (στεῖραι in Luke XXIII29 μακάριαι αἱ στεῖραι is perhaps not an adjective).

The gender value of the masculine categories is the positive reference  to a person, but this person may be male or female. Often the context gives a clue for us to decide whether woman (women) or man (men) is (are) spoken about, but not always so;  in e.g. Apc. XXII 11 ὁ δίκαιος δικαοσύνην ποιησάτω ἔτι καὶ ὁ ἄγιος ἁγιασθήτω ἔτι both sexes are meant indiscriminately. The masculine category is therefore unmarked as opposed to the feminine.

Gerhard Mussies, The Morphology of Koine Greek as Used in the Apocalypse of St. John: A Study in Bilingualism (NovTSup; Leiden: Brill, 1971), 123; my emphasis.

Okay, so that’s that. Now what does this have to do with Nominative and Accusative Cases? Well, humor me slightly longer. We’ll get to it, but we need to look at one more point.

The recent studies in Greek voice have argued that Greek Voice marks the Affectedness of the Subject. Specifically, in the Active voice, the Subject is the least affected by the action/state of the verb. In the Middle voice, the Subject is more affected and in the passive, the Subject is most affected. So for Greek Voice, Affectedness functions as a sort of scale (this is a highly simplified description; its purpose is not to discuss voice, but to introduce the concept of <i>affectedness</i>.

Now, back to case.

What happens when we take these two concepts and put them together.

Well, we know that Nominatives function as the Subject and at times depending on the Voice of the Verb, are Affected by the verb. We also know that Accusatives are the typical case for marking the Object of a given action and in this sense, it is quite reasonable to say that they are always Affected. And this is indeed true for when they’re functioning as the object of a preposition as well.

Nominatives are sometimes Affected

Accusatives are always Affect.

Do you see the asymmetrical markedness here?






This is just a thought and of course the question of markedness is less relevant to the other cases, but I will return to them soon for discussion. There are thoughts developing about them as well – just for another time.

6 thoughts on “Case: Nominative & Accusative

Add yours

  1. Two thoughts:
    (1) Several decades ago I recall Joshua Whatmough arguing that the Accusative case is fundamental the “limiting” case: it indicates end of motion or activity, end of spatial extension or temporal duration, moreover, that it is the essentially Adverbial case in much the same way that the Genitive (not talking about Ablative or Partitive) is the essentially Adjectival case;
    (2) It has always seemed to me that there is some significance to the fact that neuter nouns have identical Nominative and Accusative case-forms — the question remaining: what that significance is.

    1. According to Porter, Dana and Mantey also held that the Accusative was a “limiting” case, though I’ve never picked up their grammar (and part of me never wants to).

      Does Latin do the same thing with neuter nouns? When I was studying Russian last year, I was surprised to find out that it also has the same neutralization in the neuter. So it must be, to some degree, a PIE issue.

      1. Yes, I’m pretty sure it is a PIE issue. Of course there are later assimilations of accusative and nominative plural forms in the third declension, but that and the much later reformation of nominatives on an accusative base (later Medieval?) is a different matter. I think that with neuter nouns the identical form says something about the understanding of the neuter “gender.”

        1. I think you’re right. And I believe a comprehensive study of neuter nouns would be highly beneficial for understanding the assimilation.

          I haven’t read the book itself, but from reading reviews, its my understanding that Greville G. Corbett in his book, Gender, in the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series argues that it is completely possible to accurately predict the gender of nouns, that its not as arbitrarily assigned as some have claimed. It would be interesting to see how Greek lives up to such a claim and it might shed light on the nominative-accusative assimilation.

    1. That’s a good question. I suppose this proposal doesn’t explain that issue. I’m not sure at present, but I do have some ideas. I’ll see about writing something up in the next week.

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